The Real Madrid winger has rediscovered his old zest and is once again central to José Mourinho's attacking game plan
Angel Di María turned sharply inside then out again, leaving Carles Puyol performing the splits in his penalty area. His shot was saved by José Pinto but the ball dropped to Cristiano Ronaldo, who brought the ball down on the chest and finished the tie off. Less than 10 seconds earlier Barcelona had been on the edge of the Real Madrid penalty area; now the ball was in the back of their net. A long punt from Sami Khedira, six touches from Di María, two from Ronaldo and a place in the Copa del Rey final.
Lionel Messi had warned: "Madrid kill you on the break." But knowing that and stopping it are not always the same thing, just as it is not enough simply to stop Ronaldo. Others can damage you, Di María especially. The electricity and tenacity of the 25-year-old's game are central to Real Madrid's success: the way he screeches round the pitch, sprinting into space, closing down opponents with that characteristic running style, feet seemingly pointing upwards as if locked at the ankles, knees high, almost rocking from side to side as he runs.
He is busy, that is for sure. José Mourinho talks of his enthusiasm‚Äù. He notes: "Angel has the kind of personality that makes him think everything is possible."
If that enthusiasm had departed, it is back. It is not so long ago that Mourinho complained after a defeat at Celta Vigo that some players had not made an effort. "It's cold, it's the cup …" he said. What he did not say was that Di María was the man at whom he was pointing the finger but, having taken him off at half-time, he did not need to. He had been withdrawn at half-time in Sevilla, too, and after a defeat at Osasuna the coach said he had done nothing. At the turn of the year he was confiding to his staff that he did not know what was wrong with his right-winger.
But Di María announced his return to form in the 5-0 demolition of Valencia in January, provided the assist for Ronaldo's goal against Manchester United in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie and has now left Puyol on the floor.
Mourinho's remarks were striking because he has long been an admirer of Di María, a defender of him even. It was his decision to bring him from Benfica for €25m – a fee that many in the Spanish capital considered too high and a far cry from the 25 footballs it cost Rosario Central to pick him up as a kid. The son of a coal seller, nicknamed El Fideo, the noodle, he had moved to Benfica with his family aged 19; in his final season in Portugal he topped the assists charts, Benfica won the championship and Mourinho was adamant, even if at international level, following a disappointing 2010 World Cup, some remained unconvinced.
In his first two seasons at Madrid he scored 16 goals and made 34 assists while for Mourinho there were other equally important qualities: during one game he played as an emergency left-back and when he was taken off, Mourinho ostentatiously led the applause. Yet it was up front, a left-footer on the right, where he was really making things happen, pressuring opponents and creating chances. "He gives us something different," Mourinho says. "With space he is dangerous; even without it he can find a way to go one-on-one."
His game has evolved, too. From assists that largely came from in-swinging crosses, cutting back on to his left foot, or bursts of speed and the final pass, he began to develop a more subtle side. He still mostly played as if stuck on fast forward but he appeared to have periodically found the pause button, producing angled passes, expertly timed and perfectly placed, more reminiscent of Mesut Ozil or Xavi Hernández.
Playing on the right and being almost entirely left-footed allowed for that, yet there was also a flaw – at times, the advantage he had gained with his speed was lost as he sought to check and come back, the beaten defender finding Di María coming towards again, offering a second chance to tackle him. Indeed, perhaps the three most significant moments of his Madrid career all came on his more natural side: two startlingly similar assists for Ronaldo against Barcelona and Manchester United, and the dash through the middle, turning to his left foot, on Wednesday night.
There were other problems, in part a product of his style. Last season he missed more than 20 games because of a muscular injury that took longer to clear than expected and this season his performances dipped dramatically. The acceleration and the enthusiasm that really defines him appeared a little diminished. He is not even in the top 20 assist providers in La Liga. Yet in the Champions League he has provided more assists than anyone, averaging one every 92 minutes, and that enthusiasm is back now. He is a man to stop. The question is how. As Jürgen Klopp, the Borussia Dortmund manager whose side faced Madrid in the group stages, said: "You can't mark Di María."